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Burnt River Project
Unity Dam
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Burnt River Project (31 KB) (pdf)
General Description| Plan| Development| Benefits


General Description

The Burnt River Project in east-central Oregon consists of a storage dam and reservoir that provides water for supplemental irrigation of some 15,600 acres which formerly depended entirely on the natural flow of the Burnt River.

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Floodwaters of the Burnt River are stored in Unity Reservoir for later release when the natural flow of the river is insufficient for irrigation purposes. The reservoir assures an adequate water supply for project lands below and above the dam by exchange of stored water for natural streamflow during the summer months.

Facility Descriptions

Unity Dam

Unity Dam, located about 40 miles southwest of Baker, Oregon, is a rolled, zoned earthfill-type structure, 82 feet high above its foundation. The dam contains 254,000 cubic yards of earth and rock. The original total capacity (1938) was reported at 27,000 acre-feet. A 1991 sedimentation survey estimated the total capacity at 25,500 acre-feet (active 24,970 acre-feet).

Operating Agencies

The project is operated and maintained by the Burnt River Irrigation District.

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Early settlers in the Burnt River Valley became cattle ranchers and used bottom lands along the river to produce hay for winter feed. The first attempts at irrigation consisted of direct run-of-the-river diversions into farm ditches, without the benefit of storage. As the valley developed, the river usually dried up during July and August, leaving no water to mature crops.


In 1933, the Bureau of Reclamation, in cooperation with the State of Oregon, investigated the possibility of developing a storage structure on Burnt River to provide a late summer water supply. The project was constructed following the plan developed from this investigation.


The project was found feasible by the Secretary of the Interior on September 25, 1935 pursuant to section 4 of the Act of June 25, 1910 (36 Stat. 836) and subsection B of section 4 of the Act of December 5, 1924 (435 Stat. 702). Funds were provided by the President on August 13, 1935, under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, 1935, approved April 8, 1935. Unity Dam and Reservoir is operated exclusively for irrigation.


Construction began on August 13, 1936, and was completed in January 1939.

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Principal crops produced are alfalfa, wild hay, barley, wheat, and pasture.


Although recreation is not an operational consideration, the reservoir provides a significant amount of recreation, primarily fishing. The State of Oregon constructed and operates Unity Lake State Park at the reservoir.

Endangered Species Act

The Pacific Northwest Region consults with the NOAA Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that project operations and other activities do not jeopardize ESA-listed Species or their critical habitats. 

Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provided Biological Opinions on Reclamation's Operations and Maintenance of 12 projects and associated facilities in the Snake River Basin above Lower Brownlee Reservoir. The Burnt River Project is one of the 12 projects covered in the Opinions.

If conditions don't change these Opinions should be valid through 2035.

For more information on ESA related activies please go to:

For more information on the fish and wildlife program, please go to:  http://www.usbr.gov/pn/programs/fish_wild/index.html

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Last updated: Jun 01, 2012